Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM, is an ancient health and wellness system that has been used in China and neighbouring Asian countries for thousands of years. In contrast to Western medicine, which takes a very logical and scientific approach to treating ailments, TCM is founded upon balance, harmony and energy(1).
There are two core concepts underlying TCM: “Qi” and “Yin and Yang.” “Qi” describes our life or vital energy, which is constantly flowing and changing throughout the body. “Yin and Yang” refer to the opposing qualities of “Qi”: light vs dark, warm vs cold. These opposites, the Yin and Yang of Qi, must be well balanced to maintain the flow of Qi and in turn, a person’s health and harmony(1).
There are many types of TCM practices that are used to balance and promote the flow of Qi. These include acupuncture, cupping, herbs, meditation, tai chi and moxibustion, which is the burning of herbs near the skin(1).
There has always been a lot of scepticism in the Western world around the use of TCM, but this scepticism has primarily grown from a fear of the unknown as so little scientific research has been conducted on TCM methods.
In line with its holistic approach to healing, the herbal side of TCM involves the use of specific combinations of herbs to treat individuals, without a specific focus on one particular ailment. This is different to the simpler herbal remedies used in Europe, and explains why the use of herbs in TCM has been so much more difficult to study than Western herbal remedies(2).
However, the studies that have been done so far show promise, and many herbs used in TCM are also used in Western medicine to target complaints such as sleep issues, arthritis and the menopause(1).
It is exciting now then that TCM is finally being recognised for its contribution to worldwide healthcare and for being a medicinal system used by millions to treat a wide variety of illnesses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) sets the standards for health treatment worldwide and expresses “ethical and evidence-based policy options.” The latest (11th) version of the WHO’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), which was adopted in 2019 and will come into effect at the beginning of 2022, will include TCM remedies for the very first time.
The ICD categorizes thousands of diseases and treatments, providing diagnostic standards for clinical and research purposes. Over 100 countries rely on the ICD to determine their medical agendas. So, it is a ground-breaking turning-point for TCM to be included in this well-respected document.
The inclusion has not, however, been without its critics. Some argue that TCM should not be indicated to be equivalent to other medicines that have been subjected to rigorous clinical trials, as the research-based evidence for TCM methods is so lacking. Despite this, the WHO has insisted that it is vital for health practitioners to recognise that TCM is very much on the map of how humans live and the healthcare they receive(3).
This inclusion is an important first step in integrating TCM with Western medicinal systems(4). It is a foundation for initiating far more in-depth research into TCM and maximizing the potential of medical knowledge accrued by the human race worldwide over both generational and geographical ranges. If further research proves that the application of TCM in the modern world has limited effectiveness, the herbs used in TCM will still provide a vital starting point for identifying and exploiting potentially powerful plant molecules.